03 October 2006

Playing along with The Homeward Bounders

Ever since Alice traversed a chessboard landscape in Through the Looking-Glass, there's been an affinity between fantasy adventure stories and games. Indeed, writing an adventure story is like creating a role-playing game for readers to watch being played out. Although readers are supposed to enjoy the ride even as they know it's concocted to thrill and scare them, they mustn't come to think they're being toyed with.

One of the more chilling modern examples of a fantasy built around a game is The Homeward Bounders, by Diana Wynne Jones. Young Jamie Harrison stumbles on some immensely powerful beings playing a game that traverses several universes. He's trapped into becoming one of their playing-pieces, jumping from world to world, unable to be killed but also unable to reach home. For me, this was one of Jones's most emotionally involving non-series fantasies.

I found Homeward Bounders an interesting contrast to another imaginative fantasy with a game-playing plot, M. T. Anderson's The Game of Sunken Places. This 2004 novel takes two boys to a mysterious New England mansion where they end up playing a series of challenges to decide the rivalry of two groups of supernatural beings. While I liked individual characters and scenes, overall this book didn't pull me in; instead, I felt pulled along.

So I tried to think about why I responded differently to these two books. Most important, I think, is that Jones writes in the voice of her young protagonist, Jamie. In contrast, while Anderson's narrator usually hovers between his paired heroes, said voice also breaks off to follow other characters--including some who turn out to be privy to the game's secrets. In other words, the Sunken Places narrator could tell us all about how to play the game, but plays with our understanding instead.

Jones never makes us privy to the plans of the hugely powerful game-players in Homeward Bounders, so we never have a chance to question the logic of their lives or their game. Ironically, I think that lack of information about them is crucial to keeping them credible and scary.

Sunken Places also depends on the rivalry between groups of immensely magical creatures, but to me they come across as impossibly petty. We meet an elf clever enough to build undetectable mechanical humans--and he spends his time complaining about Keebler cookie commercials. We see a ghostly hunt thunder through the forest, and then it thunders away--a stirring image that seems to have ridden over from the end of The Dark Is Rising but doesn't seem integral to the Sunken Places plot.

And why, in the end [i.e., ***SPOILER*** coming up], do the heroes in Sunken Places dress like the Rover Boys in woolen knee pants and ties? This costuming was apparently integral to the book's concept; its dust jacket highlights that detail. Yet the clothing turns out to be a whim of the game-maker within the story, based on literary tastes--which inexorably suggests a whim of the great game-maker, Anderson himself. I too am unreasonably fond of early 20th-century boys' tales like Our Week Afloat and the Boy Fortune Hunters series, but I want books to play out their games for me, not with me. So I'll stick with Whales on Stilts and Octavian Nothing.

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